[Boycott - Academic]
Lecturer speaks out over boycott of Israel's universities row
Tom Hickey, The Argus
18 June 2007
A Brighton academic has been in the middle of a furious international row after calling for a boycott of Israel's universities. Brighton University lecturer Tom Hickey, the city's representative on the University and Colleges Union, writes for The Argus about being subjected to a campaign of "the most sustained vilification".
"Irrational", "one-sided", "anti-semitic", "counter-productive" are some of the accusations levelled against the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) for deciding to debate whether it should boycott Israeli academic institutions.
As the motion's mover, I have been subjected to the most sustained vilification. Eminent American professors, and supporters of Israel, have threatened to bankrupt and destroy the careers of any UCU members who support a boycott.
What is the truth behind this smokescreen? Why has the UCU brought this predictable condemnation down on its head?
At this year's UCU Congress, delegates decided that we cannot ignore what is being done to the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, or the systematic denial of educational opportunities and academic freedom to Palestinian students and scholars.
Occupation The territories occupied since 1967 have been colonised by Israeli settlements built on illegally confiscated land. The area has been disaggregated and rendered ungovernable by road networks for Israeli use only. The population is subjected to house demolitions as collective punishments, and to regular shooting and shelling. Farmers are separated from their land, and water supplies sharply discriminate between the needs of Palestinians and those of Israeli settlers.
In these circumstances, there can be no normal educational provision. Tutors and students are subjected to delays, harassment and humiliation at checkpoints, face visa and travel restrictions, and enormous problems of infrastructural decay and underfunding. Work is all but non-existent, and a quarter of a million are dependent for survival on food aid.
It is hard not to conclude that these policies are designed to encourage Palestinians to leave so that the remains of their land and property can be annexed to an expanded Israel.
Academic Institutions In all of this, there is strong evidence of the complicity of Israeli academic institutions. In this extraordinary and extreme situation, no Israeli college or university has publicly condemned what is being done in the Occupied Territories in the name of every Israeli citizen. None have condemned, or dissociated themselves from, the consequences of the Occupation for Palestinian education. Some have established campuses for settlers on illegally confiscated land; others conduct their archeological digs on land from which Palestinian farmers have been expelled.
Some Israeli colleagues in Israeli universities have spoken out against the Occupation. But these are the heroic few. They risk their professional careers and being ostracised. The academy as a whole remains silent.
Our boycott debate in the UCU is accused of infringing academic freedom. Academic freedom is an important freedom for scholars and researchers. The pursuit of scientific and artistic advance without let or hindrance is indeed crucial for human improvement. But it is not an absolute value taking precedence over all else. The values of human life and dignity are the ultimate objectives.
We are accused, bizarrely and hypocritically, of interfering with 'free speech'. This when it is we who are proposing a discussion and debate about the appropriateness or otherwise of a boycott, and it is our opponents who are trying to prevent such a debate taking place.
Unfair to Israel?
We are accused of singling out Israel unfairly. Singling out, that is, the "Jewish State". Hence we are accused of being anti-semites. We are asked why we do not propose a boycott of other states whose policies are barbaric and inhuman. Why do we not propose, for example, boycotts of China, or of Saudi Arabia, or of Iran, or of Zimbabwe? The names Darfur, Chechnya, and, indeed, the illegal occupation of Iraq also come to mind.
This is a strange and a self-serving argument. If there are reasons to consider a boycott in other cases, that would depend on the merits of those cases. This does not mean that a boycott of Israel is inappropriate. So are there comparable cases?
There are certainly many regimes that are repressive, and which infringe on or deny academic freedom, but are they comparable in their circumstances to Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories? Here we are not simply speaking of the manufacture of a humanitarian catastrophe (the description of the UN Special Rapporteur), we are also speaking of a protracted process of colonisation, and the attempted extirpation of the history of a whole people. Yet that itself does not explain the peculiar circumstances of this particular barbarity.
In the case of Israel, we are speaking about a society whose dominant self-image is one of a bastion of civilisation in a sea of medieval reaction. And we are speaking of a culture, both in Israel and in the long history of the Jewish diaspora, in which education and scholarship are held in very high regard. That is the specific reason why an academic boycott might have an effect in this case.
The accusation of anti-semitism is both absurd and offensive. The UCU, together with the National Union of Journalists and UNISON (also engaged in discussion of a boycott), have proud records in opposing all forms of racism, including anti-semitism, and of organising to defend the rights of the oppressed. Personally, I have spent much of my adult life, professionally and politically, analysing and resisting racism and oppression.
Accusing those who criticise Israel of being anti-semites presumes an identity of interests between Israel and all Jewish people, wherever they may be. This is illogical and contrary to the facts. Most of those who spoke in favour of the motion were Jewish, as are the members of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP). The response of Israel's defenders is to say that such people are not "proper Jews"; they are "self-hating Jews". In the interests of deploying a desperate argument, Jewishness thus becomes not a cultural or religious identity but rather an ideological position.
Boycott It may be the case, as a result of the debate in our union, that we do not decide to boycott. That will depend on the nature of the arguments in our branch discussions. If that is the outcome, however, it will not be because most members are unconcerned about the plight of the Palestinians. It would be because an alternative proposal for their aid and support, and for opposition to Israeli policy, had emerged. Such an alternative would have to be at least as effective as the boycott call in raising the issue to national and international prominence. If we do boycott after a debate, it will be of Israeli institutions not our individual Israeli colleagues.
If Israeli academic institutions are complicit in the inhuman and dehumanising treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, for us to do nothing, or to do nothing effective, would make us comparably complicit, if only by default. We are all confronted by this central moral and political issue of our time. It is one that holds the key for peace in the Middle East and beyond. In the knowledge of what is being done in the Occupied Territories, we cannot turn away, and say "business as usual".
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